Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

Conversion of a Cop: How Matt Shepard’s Murder Convinced a Policeman to Change

Sheriff Dave O'Malley (News 5 photo)

Cleveland, Ohio – In a startlingly frank address to police and federal agents, Sheriff Dave O’Malley challenged law enforcement officers to change their anti-gay attitudes towards hate crimes victims.  O’Malley, who was Chief of Police of Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998 when University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was murdered, confessed he harbored serious homophobic feelings against LGBTQ people at one time, feelings that changed as a consequence of what he learned in the course of his investigation into the hate crime that took Shepard’s life.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that O’Malley admitted to telling gay jokes and having serious prejudice against queer folk before the infamous murder of the 21-year-old gay man by two local Laramie men.  Speaking to a packed house of 250  law men and women, prosecuting attorneys, and federal agents in Cleveland on November 15, O’Malley said that back in 1998, “I was fully homophobic. Mean-spirited. ‘Faggot’ came out of my mouth as easily as ‘I love you’ to my children.”  The gruesome nature of the attack on Matthew Shepard, solely because he was gay, by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson shocked the hard-bitten Wyoming lawman.  Shepard suffered “injuries like I had never seen before,” O’Malley told the rapt audience at what has come to be known in Ohio as the annual “hate crimes conference,” sponsored by the Northern District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the local branch of the FBI.  He also saw the anguish of Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, as they had to face the worst thing that ever could happen to a child–the brutal killing of their son because of homophobia.  Now, O’Malley says he thinks of the Shepards every time he hugs his own son, thankful for the life of his child, but sorrowing for the senseless loss they suffered.  Matthew Shepard’s murder shocked the conscience of the nation in 1998, leading to the eventual passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act by the United States Congress in 2009.  McKinney and Henderson were convicted of the murder, and are serving life sentences.  Through the years, there have been various attempts to rewrite the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder, including an exposé by ABC News 20/20 that suggested “new evidence”–that young Shepard was killed inadvertently in a drug purchase gone sour, rather than as an anti-gay hate crime.  O’Malley rejects the 20/20 thesis, and from first-hand investigative experience declares that the chief motive for the killing was prejudice against Shepard because he was gay.  WEWS News 5, the local ABC affiliate, reports O’Malley urged law enforcement officers to set aside their prejudices against LGBTQ people, remembering that all people are fully human and have human rights.  The chief way to combat hate crimes of all kinds is to change the hearts and minds of investigators and prosecutors, O’Malley told the crowd; and then the effort must be made to stop the purveyors of hate. “If somebody could cure the hate-teachers, you could make a dent” in the problem, said O’Malley.  Now O’Malley is Sheriff of Albany County, where Laramie is the county seat.  Federal hate crimes law has become one of his top concerns, he explained to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  “Why is this legislation important?” O’Malley asked. “Because there are places in our country where, if you’re queer, you deserve what you get. If you happen to be gay, we may not investigate as well. We may not prosecute. I’m hoping that stops.”  Attendees say that because of O’Malley’s powerful, graphic speech, they will have to re-examine their attitudes toward minorities like LGBTQ people.  Sheriff O’Malley changed from a homophobe to an advocate for human rights for all people.  That would be the ultimate good outcome from the outrageous murder of a young gay man whose only offense was living as the person he truly was.

November 17, 2010 - Posted by | anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Beatings and battery, Bludgeoning, FBI, gay men, Hate Crimes, hate crimes prevention, hate speech, Heterosexism and homophobia, Law and Order, Legislation, Matthew Shepard, Matthew Shepard Act, Ohio, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Slurs and epithets, Social Justice Advocacy, Wyoming | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. These are great, Stephen. How can we get these out to a wider audience? I’m convinced that stories like these will change people as Sheriff O’Malley was changed. Good work; love and prayers always, your brother, Henry

    Comment by Henry P. Roberson | November 17, 2010

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